A Robust Defense of Government – Not As It Is, But As It Could Be

By Mark Schmitt

Two insights from Stan Greenberg’s analysis and data suggest the foundations of a significant new approach to politics in the years ahead. The first insight is that Americans (and especially the working-class white men and women oversampled in the poll) are enthusiastic about a supportive government role that helps them take advantage of economic and personal opportunities—but that pervasive distrust of government, in all its forms, overshadows that positive feeling. The second insight is that a strong commitment to “reform” or “streamline” government can help to overcome that distrust.

These insights, taken together, should inspire a coherent alternative to the complacent, established messages of progressive politics. The first existing message has been simply to defend and market specific government programs that promise to support economic opportunity—not only existing programs such as the Affordable Care Act, but also paid family leave, affordable student loans and the rest of the modest agenda that goes by the name, “populism.” Good programs sell themselves, the assumption goes, perhaps aided by messages such as the 2012 Obama campaign video, “The Life Of Julia,” that showed government helping a woman along the path from HeadStart to Social Security and Medicare. But as Suzanne Mettler’s book The Submerged State and other research suggest, citizens may like the programs, but programs and policies alone, especially when they aren’t clearly shown to be government programs, don’t shake their doubts about the proposition that government can be a force for good.

The other prevailing progressive message has tried to connect with voters’ sense that politics “is bought and paid for by big donors and special interests.” This is language that Hillary Clinton, along with most incumbent Democrats, has enthusiastically embraced. A reader who takes in only this aspect of Greenberg’s article might be tempted to double down on the familiar denunciations of SuperPACs, the Koch brothers, and Citizens United, and, like Clinton, call for an amendment to the Constitution that would “fix our dysfunctional political system and get unaccountable money out of it once and for all.”

While this language mobilizes the activist base, and, ironically, seems to make for a lucrative fundraising pitch, there is at least one major drawback: It is not a positive solution and it digs the hole of distrust even deeper. For voters who aren’t members of MoveOn.org, amending the Constitution is distant, implausible and confusing. To insist that the only solution is something that will never happen can only deepen cynicism about government, made worse the higher the volume is turned up on the language of corruption, plutocrats, and special interests, without any realistic alternative.

A better approach would link an explicit defense of government, and an aggressive challenge to the anti-government ethos of the modern right, with a clear recognition that government can and should do much better, not only at elections and legislation, but in providing services in innovative, modern ways. Other opinion research suggests that the public’s view of politics—that ugly, avoidable zone of mean elections and poisonous legislative fight—is inseparable from their doubts about government as a provider of benefits and security. That is, people distrust government to provide services fairly and efficiently, not because they have a bad experience at the Department of Motor Vehicles (most DMV’s have become vastly more efficient), but because they see Congress is a highly visible zone of dysfunctional conflict. This is not an accident: Ugly politics sows doubts about government, and those who benefit from doubts about government and from inaction have little reason to practice compromise.

Reform of government, then, means more than just getting money out: It should involve specific, plausible reforms that would reengage citizens in the process of government, creating new ways to make all our voices matter. It should go well beyond the technocratic “Reinventing Government” initiatives of the Clinton Administration, with high-profile efforts to show that government can be as innovative as Silicon Valley, as well as accessible and responsive. “Streamlining” government does not have to involve only cutting costs, though that might be a part of it. The tax code, for example, is now as complex for low- and middle-income taxpayers as for the wealthy, littered with credits and deductions, some refundable and some not. Streamlining government could include a strong commitment to making the tax code simpler at the low end and shifting resources to fight fraud at the top end. It could include, for example, efforts to create a single, simple portal to government services ranging from health insurance under the Affordable Care Act to small business assistance—similar to the “no wrong door” initiatives in several states.

Above all, it should include a positive vision of reform of the political process, and the role of money, that does more than reimpose limits on the political influence of the very wealthy, but empowers citizens as donors and participants. And, the most difficult challenge of all, there has to be an effort to restore to the public face of government, the legislative process, a sense of compromise and shared commitment to the public good, despite deep disagreements.

All of this should fit into the context of a reaffirmation of the importance of government, not as a force outside of our lives, for good or ill, but as an expression of our shared aspirations. Stan Greenberg’s article and data marks a new course, especially if progressives can recognize just how deeply it challenges the lines of argument that they have become comfortable with.

Mark Schmitt is the Director, Political Reform Program, New America.